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Mike Watt

Mike Watt's contributions to the much underappreciated world of the bass are staggering. If you've spent any amount of time around the instrument or someone who's played it, you're probably familiar with him.
October 7, 2010, 10:55am

Mike Watt's contributions to the much underappreciated world of the bass are staggering. If you've spent any amount of time around the instrument or someone who's played it, you're probably familiar with him. I mean, he got a lifetime achievement award from Bass Player magazine presented to him by Flea for chrissakes. And although he's a versatile guy known for mixing genres, his roots are firmly planted in the punk scene, which he's been involved with for about as long as it's been around. He founded The Minutemen, along with the late D. Boon, in 1980, and has since played with everyone from Iggy Pop to Yoko Ono.

Last week his new project, Floored by Four, released their eponymous debut album. Each of the four songs on the album are named after one of the four band members, which is a great way to boost the collective band ego in an individualized way. For each of the songs, Mike gave the respective band member a bass outline that served as a jumping off point, from which they could flesh out their tune in pretty much whatever way they saw fit.


In a few days Mike is leaving for Japan to support his third punk opera, Hyphenated-Man, which was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. I was a little intimidated to talk to Mike in the first place, and then he rescheduled our interview because he had to go practice with Yoko, which didn't make me any more comfortable.

Vice: Hey Mike, I've never been blown off for Yoko Ono before.
Mike Watt: Yeah, we're doing this trippy gig tonight.

What's she like?
She's 76 and still kicking ass.

Does she seem like the kind of lady who could have broken up The Beatles?
Haha, you know, I don't know a lot about The Beatles. I have to admit that in those days everybody else liked them, and I always looked at them as incredible musicians, but I think their popularity made it hard for me to listen to them. As far as her breaking them up, I wonder if that happened.

You should ask her.
Yeah, like she hasn't been asked that before. Maybe John and Paul just got tired of playing with each other--it might have been between them. I heard that when they recorded The White Album they weren't in the studio together. To lay it on a woman, that's pretty par. She was an artist before that, she had a life of her own, so I don't think she needed to prey on that situation. That's my opinion. She seems like a very independent lady--not afraid of anything in the artistic sense. She seems pretty balls out.

You like to write punk operas. You just finished your third one, right?
Yeah, I'm doing a Japan tour in two weeks. The third one is called Hyphenated Man. It's like 30 parts, and each part has seven or eight little parts inside it. It's a lot of shit to remember.


Hyphenated-Man was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. A 15th century Netherlandish painter seems like an obscure influence on a punk opera. How'd you connect the two?
I know, it is sort of random, but I've liked the weirdness of Bosch since I was a kid. I guess he only has like 25 paintings attributed to him and maybe signed only seven or eight of them. We don't know hardly anything about him, but he had a certain distinct, bizarre style.

There was a documentary about the Minutemen that Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron were putting together called We Jam Econo, so I was listening to a lot of the Minutemen songs at the time because they were going to be talking to me about it. I was like, "Whoa, I like these little songs." They reminded me of Bosch's paintings. He did those triptychs, three little paintings sort of combined to make one painting, and it seemed like a Minutemen gig, you know, many little songs to make one gig. I read somewhere that the guy didn't even write a letter or anything, we have nothing on him, we don't know why he did what he did.

So little paintings to make one big painting, and little parts to make one big opera. Makes sense.
The other thing I kind of mixed with it was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. My take on it is kind of trippy.

Do tell.
Well, in the movie it seems like Dorothy is tripping on what guys do to be guys. Her three companions, their big problem is not seeing what they really are. They need the wizard guy at the end to tell them that they always had it. Maybe that's what "There's no place like home" means, like if you check inside yourself, that's where your self is. Maybe it's not all about being defined by others or outside stuff. So I kind of thought, "Man, maybe this is where a lot of guys are at in middle age." They're thinking about this shit.


I'm going to be 53 in December, and I never really thought about the middle--I thought about young and old when I was younger, but I never thought of the middle. It seems like when a lot of people get to my age they start tripping. You get to this point and you're like, "What's this shit about? What have I been doing? What am I going to do?" It seemed like Dorothy was tripping on munchkins, lollipop men, flying monkeys, the man behind the curtain, all these trips.

OK, so you mean Dorothy was amazed by the stupid shit guys do to "find themselves"?
Yeah, she ends up killing two women--they're both witches, but the other women are witches too, they're just good ones. So the women's choices are kind narrowed, you've got to be some kind of witch. But the guys have all these different trips. She's seeing them all. She's growing up. She was kind of checking this stuff out by watching what guys go through. I think we should be figuring it out right away like I did with the punk scene, otherwise you have a midlife crisis and freak out.

You haven't gone through a midlife crisis?
I think it's been a lifelong crisis. I don't think it waited for midlife. I think everybody does this stuff so it's kind of a cliché to talk about, but you do see the freakouts--people with the 21-year-old girlfriend and the convertible trying to act like a young guy, that's kind of bizarre. Or going postal and killing everyone at work.


That's probably the worst type of midlife crisis ever.
Yeah, it's terrible. But a lot of these guys are in the middle of their lives and they just say, "Fuck it. I'm going out with everybody who's near me." Scary, right? Maybe if we were prone to asking ourselves those questions earlier it wouldn't be a total time bomb thing.

Probably good advice.
In the music scene, the whole thing is sort of trying to act like you're young even though you're not. Like the Rolling Stones or something, some of it is pretty ridiculous. Rock and roll, when it first came out, was young people's music. Actually it came from R&B and blues, so plenty of old people were doing it, but it was marketed early on as young people's stuff.

Not only with rock and roll, but with most new forms of music you always hear that the old people at the time didn't understand it.
Oh yeah.

Punk rock was the same deal--the older generation didn't understand it, and now the initial fans are very quickly turning into the older generation, so it's become very mainstream. It's hard to shock anyone with it anymore.
Yeah, they told me there was a Green Day Broadway play.

It's true.
I've met Billy Joe a few times but I didn't ask him about that. He's a nice guy. It's weird, because I thought punk was going to be some weird fringe thing on the side. It's trippy.

When I was a kid Green Day was the first band I was unhealthily obsessed with.
Well, I think a young people today are almost expected to have some punk years. Whereas in the old days, you know, the 70s, when we got into it, everyone hated it. It wasn't until hardcore came around in the early 80s that young people actually got into it. It really surprised me to see how accepted it got. And you know about this Hot Topic? They were telling me at one of these Warped Tours that there are mall stores that sell the clothes.


Oh yeah, you haven't heard of Hot Topic?
Well, I was playing the Hot Topic stage and I thought it was some kind of Donahue thing where you rap about some issue. I didn't know it was the name of a store.

It's an astonishingly lame place.
Making your own clothes used to be a big part of punk.

Not anymore apparently.
Richard Hell used to rip his shirts up--we thought that was wild.

Now you can just go ahead and buy your shirt pre-ripped from Hot Topic.
I think there are strong elements of punk that still go on though. Some kid in his room making his own songs--that's punk. It's not really a style of music to me, it never was. It was kind of a state of mind.

The word itself was pretty weird. Getting fucked in jail for cigarettes, not a real romantic situation.

Wait, what does getting plowed in jail for smokes have to do with punk again?
That was the slang. That's what that word meant.*

Huh. I had no idea.
Yeah. It was a bad word.

I wonder how that word came to represent that kind of music.
I don't know. I just thought these guys wanted to make their own scene. They didn't fit into the arena rock that was happening. They just took up guitars and drums and bass and tried to find their own way. In the scene I met people like Raymond Pettibon who taught me about Dada. There was a lot of this stuff that was going on. It was a kind of tradition, an interesting thing. And you being of the next shift, I guess there's a shift after you now. Teenagers and younger kids like that, so you're kind of an elder.


Yeah, I'm getting up there.
It's been handed down, and what are you guys going to do with it now?

I have no idea.
Like I said, in the old days you had all sorts of people--painters, poets, writers, and I still think you have that and I still think there are those kinds of traditions, so it's not just people in bands who make that scene. In the old days, especially because it was so underground, most people hated it. The rock and roll people especially hated it. But the fanzines were so important, they helped hold the whole scene together.

I think that's going to be a problem. Print is dying, it's kind of sad to see.
But still, the thoughts can get out via the internet.

That's true, but there's nothing quite like holding it in your hands.
Totally, the whole, "I put it together, went to the Kinkos," it was total passion. You could tell in the writing too. It wasn't hack stuff, it was guys putting everything they had into it because they were doing it because they were way into it. That can't be replaced with anything.

Well it's so much easier to go on the internet and write something, then just click "publish" and it's done. Whereas for a zine you actually have to care about something enough to take the time to lay it all out, go to Kinkos or whatever--it's a whole process.
And a lot of those cats, that's how you found out about the gigs in their towns, and you'd probably be conking at their pad after the show. It was part of the whole thing. I think that could still happen. The internet makes things more econo.


I wanted to ask you about your fixation with "econo." I know the Minutemen documentary was We Jam Econo.
Yeah, it's from a lyric in a Minutemen song. In those days, god, you know, we come from working people and we didn't have money. We had enough to get an amp, bass, drums, and guitar, and that was good enough. There were ideas that you had to have certain kinds of material stuff to make things work, and through the punk movement we found out no, you only need just enough. The Minutemen worked other jobs that whole time because the landlord didn't accept gigs as payment. So we had to do other work too--we were building the economy. Well, it was the name of the vans too, the Econo line. I still drive one.

Yeah, I saw a video of you representing the Econo line vans. You're really into it.
Well the van was the center of the tour universe. That's how you got to the other towns, how you drove from the last show to the next one, it was everything.

If you couldn't drive an Econo, what's your second vehicle of choice?
Hard question. I've never thought about it. Maybe a newer Econo line?

Can you tell me a bit about your new project, Floored by Four?
Yeah, that just came out. I'm playing with Nels Cline, who I've done a lot of things with. He's a cat who you can just bring the songs to him and, even if he's never heard them before, he can just start playing, note one. He's done improvisation for so many years.


A few years back I was chatting with Yuka Honda about Nels Cline, I had just taken him to Tokyo for the first time, and she said, "I don't know him," and I told her that he knew her music, and that he was someone she wanted to play with. And Dougie had shown me his studio in Manhattan, and I thought, "Shit, I'll write each one of these guys a song."

I read that you recorded the album in three days. Is that true? That's impressive.
Well, going back to the old punk days, that was kind of a long time. For us, it wasn't unusual to record an album in one night or something. Jamming econo. We'd do it at night so it'd be half price.

I know you've always been into mixing genres, but this one seems like a new level of musical patchwork. Did it make your brain hurt throwing so many different sounds together?
With The Minutemen I could throw anything at D. Boon, and that's what I did. I'd hear a kind of sound and I'd just throw it out, and he'd put guitar to it right away. It's kind of a tradition. For this I was thinking of each person, you know. I just tried to tailor the bass lines to them. I had no idea what they were going to do with them after I gave them my bass lines though, the songs were still just little babies, they were going to raise them into real people. And that's how I do a lot of my writing on the bass, because the politics, the physics are very strange. The bass is kind of the grout between the tiles. It's all potential, all those basslines, all those songs that I wrote for this. They were skeletons for them to work with. Also, I named each tune after them, so that gave me a little more focus.


So you wrote the bass lines and then they fleshed it out and wrote the other parts?
They knew where the stops were--the beginnings, the ends, but I didn't tell them what kind of melodies, harmonies, or syncopations to play. That's all from their personas. But yeah, I started with the bass. The bass has some kind of cliché, like you're supposed to be some background guy who gets added on last. That's why I find it funny to start with the bass. But that's my lot in life, that's OK.

I could see how it makes sense to start with the bass because it is, like you were saying, the grout that holds everything together. It seems like a good starting point.
You would never have thought it, especially when I started. It was pretty down on the hierarchy. In R&B music the bass was big, but in the 70s arena rock stuff it was way down there. It's like how you put your retarded friend in right field in little league.

The bass is your retarded friend?
Yeah, kind of, you throw him in right field where nobody hits the ball. But when punk came, the bass got much stronger. I think that's because a lot of those guys were just starting out, so it was kind of equal ground.

They were all the retarded kids in right field
Haha, yeah, it kind of helped us out a little bit. Now some kids learn bass as their first instrument. But you know, if it's the Alabama sausage whistle, or whatever instrument you're working with, it should be valid. All those musical stereotypes are funny.

Wait, what's an Alabama sausage whistle? Is that what I think it is?
Haha, actually, it wasn't even my decision to start playing the bass--D. Boon's mom put me on it. She just thought every band needed one. Maybe she just wanted me on that and wanted D. Boon on guitar. It takes a lot of colors to make a rainbow.

I especially liked Yuca's song, which had some weird lyrics that made me think of strange gypsies on the street who spit out cryptic advice to passers-by--"From the eyes of water, water flows," and "From the eyes of light, light grows."
It's actually kind of retarded, huh? Of course from the water the water would flow. When she came to a Stooges gig she was dancing on the table. She said, "I've been doing sissy music, I want to play rock and roll!" So I thought I'd write her a rock and roll tune. When I think of rock and roll I think of little Richard, "Tutti frutti, oh Rudy." I guess there's encrypted shit in that, but he sings it so passionately. Sometimes in rock it seems like it doesn't matter what they're singing. I remember when I first heard Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," I thought he was saying, "Excuse me while I kiss this guy." It wasn't until later I found out it's "while I kiss the sky." I didn't know the real words. That happened a lot.

So you didn't think it was some sort of metaphor for drugs, but just like, "hang on one second, I've got to make out with this dude."
Haha, I fucked up a lot of words. A lot of times they didn't print them on the album covers so shit, I didn't know. Rock and roll was more about how you did it, and sometimes it was a let down when you found out what the real words were.

What do you do when you're not playing music?
I like to kayak. I do it Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I like to ride my bicycle too. I started kayaking about eight years ago and riding a bike about fourteen years ago.

You have a set kayak schedule?
Yeah. If I alternate the days it gives my knees a break. The bike can be a little rough on these lame knees, but it's kind of neat, I didn't ride a bike for 22 years because I got a car when I was sixteen. I was an asshole and thought bikes were for little kids. I'm no speedster though, I don't wear Nascar suits or anything.

No spandex shorts?
Haha, no, no spandex shorts. I'm not very fast, it takes about two and a half hours to do 15 miles at the crack of dawn. Basically, I'm listening. Driving the car I'd never listen, but riding my bike I hear birds. Living here in Pedro we've got the ocean and cliffs and warehouses and docks--it's kind of for the mind, too, it's not all a jock thing. It helps the body a little bit.

*The only places I could find that definition of "punk" was in other interviews with Mike.

UPDATE: As pointed out numerous times in the comments, Mike's definition of "punk" is obviously correct and well-known. My apologies.